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ORLANDO, Fla. — Veterans Affairs Sec. Robert Wilkie told a large gathering of student veterans Friday that his No. 1 priority for the VA in 2019 is quality customer service.
That’s why the VA will correct inaccurate payments made to thousands of student veterans last fall. Stymied by technical problems, the department has been giving students the wrong housing stipend amounts for months and continues to do so — long after the Aug. 1 deadline Congress gave VA to calculate housing stipends under revised rules.
“The bottom line is: We owe you every penny that you’ve earned. That is what the nation has promised you, and that is what you deserve,” Wilkie said, addressing some 2,300 student veterans attending the annual Student Veterans of America National Conference via livestream, after his plans to attend in-person were cancelled last minute because of travel restrictions amid the government shutdown.
The Forever GI Bill, which became law in 2017, required VA to change the way it calculates housing stipends in two ways. One mandated that VA alter stipends for new students to match what the Department of Defense pays its E-5s with dependents. The other instructed VA to calculate stipends based on the campus where students take most of their classes, rather than the school’s main campus, which has traditionally been used to determine housing stipends.
VA wasn’t able to make either change by the initial deadline. But fixes are on the way, according to Wilkie.
GI Bill users who were shorted as a result of the first of those problems will receive a check in the mail for the difference by the end of the month, Wilkie said. Any veterans who were overpaid will be allowed to keep the extra money.
A solution to the campus problem will not come until December 2019. VA recently ended its contract with Booz Allen Hamilton, its initial partner for this part of the project. The department plans to have a new contract awarded by next month to another vendor, which it expects to correct the campus-based stipend problems in time for the spring 2020 semester.
At that point, the department will retroactively correct payments for students who would have received a larger housing allowance attending a branch campus, rather than their school’s main campus.
In his remarks after the secretary’s, Student Veterans of America President Jared Lyon called last fall’s delays “unacceptable” and said the “reset will allow the VA to step off on the right foot and create a better path that will better serve students and schools.”
“While the reset was needed, our work is not done. This new situation means a new process, and SVA will continue to be there ready to speak up on behalf of those most directly impacted by VA’s decisions,” Lyon said.
Wilkie assured student veterans that under his leadership, they have a permanent seat at the table at the VA and are “now at the center of our operations.”
He urged any veterans experiencing financial hardship because of the delays to reach out to the department to get their payments expedited.
The study, conducted by Dartmouth College researchers and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this week, looked at 121 regional markets with at least one VA facility and found the department-run medical center provided better care than private options in most cases. In only a few cases, VA was the least desirable option for most patients.
VA hospitals were frequently the best option for patients in treating heart ailments and pneumonia. They study also rated more than half of the VA hospitals reviewed as the best local option for death rates among patients with surgery complications and treatment of bloodstream infections after surgery.
In a statement, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie hailed the findings as proof the VA system is delivering “the very best quality of care that (veterans) have earned through their faithful service to our country.”
But in a press release lauding the study, VA officials also attacked authors’ analysis that questions whether expanding more access to private-sector physicians for veterans will produce better health care for the population.
President Donald Trump has repeatedly promised to make accessing outside medical care easier for veterans, a prospect that critics have called the gradual privatization of VA’s mission.
Last summer, lawmakers passed the VA Mission Act, which among other initiatives mandates an overhaul of the department’s community care programs. Department officials are in the process of rewriting rules for veterans to receive medical treatments outside the Veterans Health Administration while still using taxpayer funds.
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Wilkie is expected to testify on that work so far at a joint House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees hearing Wednesday. On Thursday, department officials argued that VA hospitals providing exemplary care does not mean that community care options are less important to the larger department health care plans.
“(The study) ignores the fact that for decades (community care) has served as a vital tool for ensuring VA has the ability to provide veterans the best, most timely health care possible, and that it enjoys strong bipartisan support,” the release stated.
A Wounded Warrior Project membership survey released earlier this month noted that more than two-thirds of responded preferred VA as their primary health care provider, citing in part more confidence in those physician’s expertise in handling military-specific wounds.
That group has also seen an increased reliance on the VA system for serious health needs. More than 70 percent of those polled used VA mental health services in the last year, up from 63 percent four years ago.
Democrats in the House have promised close scrutiny of the new community care rules — due this spring — to ensure that VA funding isn’t being shifted outside the department’s system to private-sector physicians who provide a lesser quality of care.